Trump’s Organized Chaos: Channeling the Dictators – And Their Lieutenants

By Shalom Goldman | (Informed Comment) | – –

When Donald Trump was vying for the Republic nomination, and even more so after he won the nomination and was running for office, some of his most alarmed critics compared him to Adolf Hitler. These claims were not restricted to the American fringe (in all of its wide variety) but appeared in mainstream publications. Among these making the comparison were Vincente Fox, the former President of Mexico and Cher, the pop singer.

In “Lessons from Hitler’s Rise,” an April 2017 article in the New York Review of Books, historian Christopher Browning, reviewing a recently published biography of Hitler, noted that “in early 2017 it is impossible for an American to read this book outside the shadow cast by our new president.” Rejecting simplistic comparisons between the lives of Hitler and Trump, Browning wrote that “In war as in childhood, Hitler and Trump could not have had more different experiences.” What can be compared , in Browning’s opinion, are the political perceptions of many disaffected citizens in Weimar Germany and Trump’s America. In both cases, anger, resentment, and discontent fuel the disaffected.

To my mind the wittiest riposte to the Trump-Hitler comparison came from an unexpected quarter, the pen of American Jewish novelist Shalom Auslander, who wrote in the Washington Post that “Hitler was a psychopath. Trump is just a con man. Hitler had some opinions, he had some plans. They were monstrous and evil . . . but I don’t recall Hitler flip-flopping”

Today, in the wake of the events in Charlottesville and Trump’s comments on those events, it seems that the president has both opinions and plans – though his manner of expressing the former and implementing the later are still confusing to both his supporters and his opponents. Many of those opponents fear that we are witnessing the rise of fascism of a particularly American type. If this is so, the rise of European fascism in the first three decades of the last century can offer us some important lessons.

These lessons are about structure and process, rather than about personality. The demonstrations and counter demonstrations at Charlottesville, and Trump’s remarks about the “two sides,” remind me of Joseph Goebbels remarks about the streets of Berlin. “Whoever can conquer the streets, can conquer the masses, and thereby conquers the state.” Goebbels said this in 1926, seven years before the Nazi assumption of power and his appointment as Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda. The street fighting that Goebbels’ was referring to was the increasingly violent brawling between Fascists and Communists. At the time, the members of the Left far outnumbered the members of the Right. But the Right united under the Nazis while the Left splintered into many factions.

Other pundits have compared Trump to Benito Mussolini, the Italian Fascist dictator. And Trump gave this speculation some juice when he retweeted a remark attributed to Il Duce: “It is better to live one day as a lion than 100 years as a sheep.” When informed that the quote was Mussolini’s, Trump said, “I didn’t know who said it, but what difference does it make if it was Mussolini or somebody else – it’s a very good quote.”

In a more serious appraisal of the Trump – Mussolini comparison, historian of fascism Anis Shivani noted that “There were always more assertive fascists around than Mussolini – but he was able to keep them in check. He was a master at playing one competitor against the another, exploiting their vulnerabilities to stay in power.”

We won’t find exact parallels between 1926 Berlin and the US in 2017– or exact parallels between Mussolini, Franco, and Hitler in Twentieth Century Europe and Trump in Twenty First Century America. But the emerging dictator who can “play one competitor against the other” is a figure that characterizes the tyrannies of both the Right and the Left.

In those tyrannies a leader emerges who exerts a seemingly irresistible fascination for millions of people emerges. In the next stage of fascism’s development the dictator’s henchmen – and in today’s world – henchwomen– are allowed to conduct their struggles for power in full view of the public. The dictator, now firmly in power will see to it that the most effective and persuasive of contenders will triumph.

That is the stage that we seem to be in now. How else to explain the constant shuffling of musical chairs in the White House staff? Bannon, Scaramucci, Priebus, Spicer, Flynn, are but five of over a dozen staffers– at various levels of authority— who have left the White House since Inauguration Day.

Like Trump’s appointees Hitler’s lieutenants were allowed to fight it out in public. Writing in the 1930s the German Jewish journalist Bella Fromm observed that “There is nobody among the officials of the National Socialist party who would not cheerfully cut the throat of every other official in order to further his own advancement. Hitler likes it that way. Keeps them on their toes. Also, he apparently thinks that a man who has the ability to fight his way through may be of use to him.”

Am I suggesting that one sinister figure manipulated the current chaos, as the chaos in Weimar Germany was manipulated ? It is difficult to say who that might be, though I’m sure that the conspiracy theorists have many suggestions. Rather, I’m suggesting that a process of ‘organized chaos’ is at play, a process from which the most manipulative and repressive of Trump’s lieutenants will emerge with even more power. And with that consolidation, Trump, or his replacement, will be even more effective as the leader emerging from American chaos.

Shalom Goldman is professor of religion at Middlebury College. He has authored numerous books, including Zeal for Zion: Christians, Jews, and the Promised Land and God’s Sacred Tongue: Hebrew and the American Imagination. His most recent book, Jewish-Christian Difference and Modern Jewish Identity, has recently been featured in the Patheos Book Club.

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Related video added by Juan Cole:

The Majority Report with Sam Seder:
“What Democrats Should Be Focused On After Trump’s Nazi-Sympathizing”

3 Responses

  1. I will be curious, in a morbid sort of way, to watch this play out. Weimar saw severe tension between party operatives and the military – the former striving to corral all the bits of power after the 1932 election, the latter trying to hold on to its historic status. Think Trump’s generals vs. his ear-whisperers.

    As in 1934, the military seems to have the upper hand. But as we know because history allows us to read ahead, the much more organized and efficient SS supplanted Roehm’s more chaotic bully-boys of the SA.

    In the end it was the generals who had to bow down and pledge personal fealty to Hitler. If that happens here it will be a tragedy. If the generals come out on top it could be even worse. In neither case do I see democracy being the winner.

  2. The totally demented Trump alt-right lieutenant Alex Jones is currently preoccupied with what is in Mrs. Obama’s pants.

    link to youtu.be

    Apparently, Mr. Jones has never been close enough with a woman to understand the term SANITARY NAPKIN something which a fertile woman can need from time to time.

  3. Hitler did flip-flop. He flip-flopped on Czechoslovakia, regretting in his diary that he made the deal with Chamberlain. He flip-flopped, after all, on the Soviet Union. The matter of his consistency on domestic policy is complicated by the very subject of this article, his game of playing subordinates against each other, which implies shifting positions on the policies that each were associated with like Ernst Rohm. But the very point of Hitler’s Fuhrer Doctrine was that the Fuhrer requires flexibility instead of being a servant of a particular ideology. He placed himself above principle. He thus offered to the most ideological people on Earth, the people who birthed both Communism and Nazism, a chance to surrender to the simplicity of blind loyalty. This cleared the path for his strategic flip-flops, buying time to see which of his foreign enemies would be weak enough to strike next.

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